KAPIL’S COMEDY NIGHTS : THE JOKE IS ON US

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Although Comedy Nights with Kapil is an unofficial adaptation of the British show ‘The Kumars at No. 42’, complete with a libidinous grandmother, an unmarried aunt, a dangerously fat neighbour and a nagging wife. While a chunk of the show is solo stand-ups and sketches between the characters, at least a third usually involves interaction with members of the audience, who happily line up for their public flogging.

However, Comedy Nights with Kapil (CNWK) was a new phenomenon on Indian television when it was first telecast in 2013. It became an instant hit. All film producers, TV producers, actors, actresses, singers, cricketers (when there are no significant film releases) everyone made a beeline to be part of the show. All jumped on the bandwagon called CNWK. Because this platform, more than anything else around, gave their products, be it a film, a TV serial or anything else, instant attention and recognition across the country and wherever else our satellite footprints reached!

So much so that ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’ became a chart-buster and snatched the TRPs from all other comedy programs single handedly in spite of clashing with their show timings, 10 pm on weekends. People from across all age groups talking about the show and even laughing on the next day on some of the anecdotes from the show.

Basically from Punjab, Kapil Sharma (as Mr Sharma in Comedy Nights with Kapil) is a comedian, who initially started out quite insignificantly when Raju Srivastava and Sunil Paul strode the comedy landscape as a colossus .His incorrect English, bad accent ,and gawkiness all struck a note with the viewer and he tasted success like no comedian before him . In fact those anomalies became his USP

He was seen to speak the language of the common people.

But dig deep and you will see most of the conversation hinges around insulting women (read his wife, bua, and dadi , and 2 transgender neighbours). Basically 5 women and one guy.

This language, which has captured the imagination of everyone, ordinary television audiences and celebrities alike, is precisely what is difficult to digest and hurts sensibilities: it is a language so regressive that it reflects and perpetuates all kinds of discriminations, from caste and class to sex and race.

But mostly is panders to the cravings of the Indian MCP, as joke after joke is shot our denigrating women. Well one can be liberal and take it as a joke,

Kapil’s rise in just a couple of years has been nothing but stratospheric: from a mere television face, he has become one of the two or three most admired personalities as well as top marketable commodities in India. There is hardly any celebrity in the country (except Aamir Khan) who has not appeared or has not wanted to appear on his show.

But behind the excellent comic timing and razor-sharp repartee (incidentally most of this is scripted by a battery of writers) of Mr. Sharma lies the ugly face of Indian popular culture. A show that was supposed to be a “family show”, with substantial appeal to children and the youth, thrives instead on blatant misogyny.

The many female characters played by men form the base of the show. This is not done with any intention to break gender norms, but to provide laughs through mocking and exaggerated portrayals of femininity. White women, as elsewhere in Bollywood, are the “items” that are constantly used, despite having no relationship to the narrative. In one episode, former cricketer Sunil Gavaskar is ushered onto the stage by white dancers, purportedly because there were no cheerleaders during his cricketing days!

The references to gori ladkiyaan (white women) are unabashed in their objectification. Of course, even the other women (including the character of Mr. Sharma’s wife), are seen merely as a sum of their physical appearances, praised or damned on that basis. Here’s how he denigrates his wife all the time in the show. Mr Sharma takes cheap shots at how ugly his wife’s lips are,thereby justifying why he makes passes at every female celebrity on the show. As if centuries and centuries of patriarchy weren’t enough this kind of sickening mentality finds a beguiled way to percolate through society, making us believe that even in  this day and age a female’s only job is to look pretty and produce a heir ( a male child for most in major parts of India). Therefore, it is not surprising that obesity and other supposed negative features of physical beauty (also of men) become the pegs to hang some of the major set pieces of the show. And it is a stark irony that every programme ends with the call: auraton ki izzat karein (respect women)! Even the venerable Amitabh Bachchan has had to go through the Kapil grind mill  and kiss Ali Asgar (Dadi),thanks to the new stringent promotion contracts of Studios.

From celebrating beauty and white complexion, it is only a logical step to show egregious racism or casteism, with references to people as Zambia ke bhikari (beggars from Zambia) and Afriki bhaloo (African bear). Sri Lankans also become the butt of jokes because they are “obviously” inferior to us. While the looks of actors Rajpal Yadav and Rajkumar Yadav (now Rajkummar Rao) are made fun of, the royal background of a Saif Ali Khan is fawned upon. South India, too, becomes one of the exotic nether regions in the show. Thus Mr. Sharma asks Hema Malini in one episode whether her husband is able to understand “South Indian” (I guess he meant Tamil).

Here’s an illustration of how racist CNWK can become. On one particular episode in November last, the guest being Saina Nehwal, the show’s cross dressing character Palak, did a turn as Serena Williams. The problem was not that Sania Nehwal, a badminton player, was supposed to watch a sketch about a tennis player. I mean kifark painda ji, ladies must be encouraged, as Kapil sanctimoniously said at the end. The problem was that Palak was in Blackface — skin blackened, lips hugely exaggerated, like a minstrelsy throwback. Do Kapil Sharma and his team, and the team at the television channel, not know that blackface is an intensely racist theatrical tradition, where white actors blackened their faces and painted on thick lips, to play stereotypical African-American figures? And that these figures were always depicted as sly or stupid, servile or cunning, always inferior, playing into the worst race prejudices which existed against a history of inhuman cruelty? Do they also not realise it’s doubly offensive when at this precise moment, the news from their aspirational other, the USA, has seen of anger around a racist violence and grand jury verdict in the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, USA.

What is also interesting is that despite the show being set in a lower middle class household, the reaffirmation of class hierarchies is strong. There is constant disparaging of domestic help and lower classes: Do takke ka naukar (worthless servant) is an echoing refrain. The domestic help is asked to know his/her place. Needless to say, all this is done humorously.

Scholar John Morreall, author of Taking Laughter Seriously, has argued that for centuries, Western thinking — ancient Greek philosophers, Christianity, early modern theorists — greatly looked down upon laughter. As Plato, one of the prominent critics of laughter, noted, “when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction”. According to Mr. Morreall, the reason for this negative evaluation of humour was that it involved laughing at others; that it was motivated by malice, mockery, derision and feelings of superiority. Thus, such humour was morally repugnant.

As we all know, this is not the only reason we laugh; we can also take delight in raucous humour that is not directed at mocking inferiors. There are equally great philosophical traditions that affirm this and the necessity of humour as the basis of human social existence. The problem is that humour in much of Indian mass media is about laughing at others.

This does not mean that shows like “Comedy Nights” do not contain elements that are not scornful, or that they do not subvert some dominant norms. They do, especially with characters like the grandmother, a sexualised figure with an alcohol problem. But overwhelmingly, Mr. Sharma and the show, termed as a “milestone for Indian comedy on television”, are purveyors of a comedy that debases others. It is worrying to see a prominent woman Bollywood actor mocking gays and transgenders on “Comedy Nights”, especially when the larger popular culture is suffused with the values of dominant castes, class and gender. As the AIB roast showed, even as a few social conservatisms with regard to sex are challenged, the more dangerous forms of misogyny, racism, and casteism are affirmed popularly.

More critically, the popularity of shows like that of Mr. Sharma’s is soaring at a time when the space for satire and humour that can challenge dominant thought is decreasing, and the “ban culture” is spreading its tentacles. Whether it is Mr. Sharma or AIB, the one form of humour that has been a potent weapon in every society of the world — laughing at the political ruling class — is completely absent; politics is taboo. When the social realm acquiesces so easily to the political establishment, the forces of violent majoritarianism run amok.

Where in Indian popular culture is a figure like Richard Pryor, who used humour to speak the unspeakable, and to show America its ugly face of racism and the colossal inequities built on it? And for how much longer will we celebrate the “under the belt” humour of a Kapil Sharma and refuse to look into the mirror to see the ugliness of our own society? And the immediate unfortunate fall out is that undiscerning impressionable minds of children and illiterate and semi-literate adults are constantly being hammered with this kind of regressive and unintelligent humour every week, (even if it’s for just one day a week now).

And what’s more frustrating is that such comedy is being produced for TRP sake by people who are supposedly intelligent, and are supposed to be more sensitive.

The present-day government should encourage progressive mindsets and thinking in society rather than waste time and money in policing our bedrooms and censoring what we are watching in the name of protecting Indian culture. We must decide which culture we are protecting the debasing and regressive culture propagated by CNWK or protecting liberal and progressive thinking which respects and protects individual freedom and choice. Unfortunately the government of today is more skewed towards regressive thinking in the name of so-called Indian culture.

This is not to say that ban programmes like CNWK, it’s to say that these programmes should be more progressive, break stereotypes about gender, race, social status and other things using laughter as an effective medium.

So CNMK can again recreate the magic it initially created provided it controls the quality and doesn’t thrive on regressive stereotypes for generating humour and also doesn’t just become a new film promotional tool. And if it continues its downward TRP slide, then soon even the film and television fraternity would start looking elsewhere for greener pastures to promote their films.

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